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‘Korczak’ (NR)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 16, 1991

"He who says that he sacrifices himself for somebody else is a liar. This man likes to play cards, that man likes women, another never misses a horse race. I like children," confides Janusz Korczak, the Polish pediatrician whose selflessness nevertheless defines the earnest biography by director Andrzej Wajda.

Set in Warsaw between 1936 and 1942, "Korczak" is an eloquent account of the Jewish doctor, educator and writer's losing battle to save 200 orphans from the gas chambers at Treblinka. A man of enormous courage and conscience, Korczak perished with his charges though he had been repeatedly urged to escape.

Wojtek Pszoniak brings a zealot's unflagging dedication to the role of Korczak, a multifaceted individual who is as impatient with wrong-thinking adults as he is tolerant of errant children. As Pszoniak so deftly portrays him, Korczak was a saint, but not one to don a halo willingly. An honorable but realistic man, he would stoop to almost anything to acquire another bag of potatoes for his orphanage.

Korczak is a scholar and humanist whose children's rights movement is derailed by the Nazi invasion of Poland. When he is forced to move his children into the ghetto with Warsaw's other Jews, Korczak shields them as best he can from the cruel realities of their confinement. Obsessed with caring for his children -- even to emptying their slop jars -- he at first denies the hopelessness of the situation. "The Nazis are ruthless, but surely they will spare the children," he figures.

Gentile friends and admirers try to persuade Korczak to flee to safety, but he refuses to leave his young charges. When the Nazis' intentions become clear, Korczak -- perhaps wrongheadedly -- ignores his staff's recommendation that they try to save some of the children. Instead he decides to keep the family together so none will die alone.

Stunningly photographed in black-and-white by Robby Muller and deftly scripted by Agnieszka Holland, "Korczak" also serves as a richly detailed, hugely tragic document of Warsaw ghetto life. And like so many Holocaust films, it portrays the ultimate triumph of human dignity over incomprehensible barbarity.

"Korczak" is in Polish with English subtitles and is unrated.

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